Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with youth marketers and cultural/media
analyst of media culture and author of several books
on new media and popular culture also is the correspondent in FRONTLINE's "The
Merchants of Cool"
In the "Dawson's Creek" tv series, kids are adultified kids. How is this to
the marketer's advantage to write parents out?
Well, the object of the game for marketers is to appeal to children and teens
as decision-makers. Because in the end you want these kids to make choices
about what they buy. You want kids to feel that their consumer choices matter.
So what you have to do in making a TV show for children that's going to make
them into better consumers is create a universe that doesn't have adults or at
least has adults that don't matter. Even the adult in "Buffy" who used to be
her advisor, her mentor, is now this sort of little, meek, surrogate parent,
but Buffy's in charge. So you need to make kids feel like this stuff matters
so that they actually pay attention to the ad, so they pay attention to their
consumer choices and don't make them lightly. If kids make their consumer
choices lightly, then all this money going to advertising is for naught. If
kids take their consumer and consumption choices seriously, then it justifies
spending all this money marketing to them.
It's very different from when we were kids. When we were kids, there [also]
were no adults in the world of Charlie Brown ... it was more to throw the kids
into the existential dilemma because Charles Schultz was kind of an
existentialist. When it comes down to it, Charlie Brown is relying more on
Linus than on his teachers or his parents to tell him what's going on in this
world. He was a kid trying to know sense of reality.
You've still got kids doing that, but now they're being given tools to do it.
Instead of it being a little vacant world of little heads going around
thinking, it's a world of shampoo and perfume and clothing, where making these
purchases can ground you again, can make you feel like you're in charge of
what's going on in your life. You don't realize that you're really just
choosing between Nike and Airwalk.
media critic and the author of Boxed In: The
Culture of TV
Some might want to argue that the elimination of adults from the scenarios of
teen TV is a profoundly realistic development, because, after all, there are
no adults hangin' around in teenagers' worlds. So it's really more grown-up in
a way, more realistic to write them out of the story.
But I think that while that might be the case in some instances, the fact is
that it serves other purposes. I think there's a commercial logic behind that
elimination. For one thing, it is profoundly gratifying to feel like you and
your friends, your peers, are the center of the universe. There is a kind of
implicitly fantastic appeal here that you, in that vicarious way, by watching
TV can live in a world where you don't have to be bothered by those figures.
You also live in a world where those figures, when they do come up, are morons.
They're insensitive, they're bullies, they don't get it, and so on--which is,
of course, often true in life. ... But it suits the purposes of the
advertisers and the media managers to concentrate only on the lurid, only on
the most colorful kinds of problems. It serves a kind of pornographic function
really, even though we often like to tell ourselves that it's simply a
reflection of increased realism because there are such problems in the
a founding partner in Look-Look, a research company specializing
in youth culture
Most parents, they're really time poor. They're both working. They're
not there. So they're physically not there to monitor what's going on so the
kids have a lot of free time. Economically, they're given a lot of what's
called "guilt money" -- "Here's a credit card. Why don't you go online and buy
something, because I can't spend time with you?" There's a lot of that going
And now [teens] can work parents. It's not just the dad who has a credit card.
Mom and Dad both have several credit cards and also when you're working all the
time and you're tired, you don't really want to haul to the mall and spend four
hours shopping with your kid. Sometimes it's easier to sit down with catalogs
that are really specific to the young audience and go, "Oh, you know, isn't
that great?" And "We like this and let's order it from the catalog or let's
order it online." And so there's lots of credit card spending.
It seems like companies once used to have to go through parents to get
to kids. And now it's direct? ...
...If you're talking to an under ten year-old kid, you always have to be
concerned that what the parents are thinking and feeling are still a great
influence. By the time they reach 14-15-16, parents will tell you themselves
"they don't really care what I think." So it's pretty much they're on their
own path and they have a really big mind shift and most companies will just go
directly to them.
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